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NY top court upholds ban on physician-assisted suicide

ALBANY — New York’s highest court upheld the state’s ban on physician-assisted suicide Thursday, saying the state law doesn’t violate individuals’ constitutional rights.

The Court of Appeals, in a 5-0 decision, said a right to “aid in dying,” as asserted by advocates, was “not fundamental” and that the state’s ban on it didn’t violate due process protections. Further, the court noted the State Legislature has a “rational basis for criminalizing assisted suicide” — meaning doctors can be prosecuted for participating in a suicide.

“Although New York has long recognized a competent adult’s right to forgo life-saving medical care, we reject plaintiffs’ argument that an individual has a fundamental constitutional right to aid-in-dying as they define it. We also reject plaintiff’s assertion that the state’s prohibition on assisted suicide is not rationally related to legitimate state interests,” the five-judge panel wrote. [Two judges on the bench abstained because they had served on mid-level courts that handled the lawsuit earlier.]

The judges added that the state ban was clear: “The assisted suicide statutes apply to anyone who assists an attempted or completed suicide. There are no exceptions . . .”

The lawsuit was filed in 2015 by a coalition led by three patients with terminal diagnoses. Steve Goldenberg, who has since died of HIV-related illness; Sara Myers, who has since died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease; and Eric Sieff, who is still being treated for cancer. They were joined by several groups, including the New York Civil Liberties Union and “End of Life Choices New York,” which advocates for “aid in dying.”

In oral arguments at the court earlier this year, they contended lower state courts had erred in applying a “dictionary definition of suicide” and upholding a century-old New York law against assisted suicide. They contended that the ban shouldn’t apply to those seeking an end to incurable diseases.

Advocates called the decision a “significant blow” but vowed to pursue change through the State Legislature — where they have been campaigning for repeal for several years.

“We will continue to fight to establish the right to aid in dying in the New York State Legislature, so that we can join the six other states and the District of Columbia” where assisted suicide is legal, said Laurie Leonard, director of End of Life Choices New York.

The Catholic Conference, which represents Catholic bishops of New York, applauded the outcome.

“Moreover, the court ruled that there is an important and logical distinction between refusing life-sustaining treatment and actively assisting in suicide, a distinction our Catholic tradition has always recognized,” said Kathleeen Gallagher of the Catholic Conference. “The decision is a significant victory for those who would be most at risk of abuse and most susceptible to pressure to take their own lives, including the isolated elderly, persons with disabilities, and those who are depressed and overcome with hopelessness.”

State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, whose office defended the state ban, declined to comment.

State & Region